Marta Bashovski is an Assistant Professor of Political Theory at Campion College at the University of Regina, Canada. She teaches courses in the history of political thought, contemporary political theory and the politics of knowledge. She likes questioning assumptions.
Are “inalienable rights” as timeless as we think they are?
You may already know about the most famous ideas in the United States Declaration of Independence: that all people are created equal and hold certain “unalienable rights,” among them the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These words were written in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the United States. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also listed the American colonies’ grievances against the British crown, announcing the colonies’ independence from the crown. The colonies should be independent because, Jefferson argued, the duty of governments is to protect people’s “unalienable rights,” which Great Britain had failed to do. This was the starting point for the American Revolution.
“Unalienable rights” or, as we would say today, “inalienable rights,” are rights that cannot be given up or taken away by any government. These are the most basic rights we tend to take for granted: they are obvious truths about our lives. The right to life means that no one can harm or kill you. The right to liberty means you can act as you would like, and, except for limited cases—usually when you infringe on the rights of others—the government cannot tell you what to do. The right to the “pursuit of happiness” is trickier but intuitively still seems obvious. We have a right to choose to live our lives in ways that make us content.
Even though we tend to think about “inalienable rights” as obvious and universal, they have a history. Tracing the multiple historical threads through which the concept of “inalienable rights” emerged is an example of the practice of genealogy. Genealogy is a method used to investigate how supposedly timeless or universal ideas—“what we tend to feel is without history” (Foucault, 1977, p. 139)—came about through specific cultural, social, and political circumstances, and at particular moments in history. The genealogy of “inalienable rights” shows some of the political activity through which certain ideas—ones that we assume are obvious—came about.
While “inalienable rights” and how they relate to our governmental systems may seem obvious today, they were hotly debated when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. This was a time when the absolute power of monarchs was declining and the power of parliaments was growing. By 1776, there was an established European philosophical tradition that held that there were basic, ‘God-given’ laws of human life, and rights that all human beings were born with. This is known as the “natural law” and “natural rights” tradition and it is from where Jefferson drew many of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence.
One key influence on the writing of the Declaration of Independence was the English philosopher John Locke’s 1690 text Two Treatises on Government. Locke was a strong proponent of natural rights and the power of parliaments over monarchs. He was also connected to the American colonies and is thought to have helped draft the Carolina colony’s first constitution. However, there was one key difference between the “unalienable rights” declared by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and those listed by Locke. Rather than proclaiming the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Locke described “property” as a God-given natural right of every person, arguing that every person has a right to “life, liberty, and estate [property]” (Locke 1980, p. 46).
For Locke, the most basic forms of property we own are our bodies and our labour. Our bodies do not belong to anyone but ourselves, and we can use and sell our labour to create value for ourselves. Importantly, we can use our bodies and our labour to create private property out of the earth, which, Locke argues, has been given to all humans in common. For Locke, land itself is of no specific use until we have improved it with our labour (usually agricultural), like when a farmer grows an apple orchard. For Locke, when a person works on a piece of land, that land becomes their private property. Because people need private property to thrive, he believed, property constituted an “inalienable right.”
To make his case, Locke compared European agricultural and industrial practices to his understanding of the practices of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. He argued that engaging in agricultural labour produces economic resources that make land more valuable. Because Indigenous peoples were not practicing stewardship of their lands in ways Europeans viewed as productive, Locke argued that they were wasting these lands. This view of land and private property thus justified the taking of Indigenous lands by European settlers. For Jefferson and the U.S. Founding Fathers, Locke’s understanding of property as a natural right was politically helpful, because they wanted to expand their landholdings by taking land from Indigenous peoples, a practice that King George III had limited. These limits were one of the grievances Jefferson listed in the Declaration of Independence.
The genealogy of “inalienable rights” includes both large-scale events and concepts like the Declaration of Independence, the philosophy of “natural rights,” and the dispossession of Indigenous lands, as well as smaller details like John Locke’s involvement in the Carolina colonies and important changes in the phrasing of documents. Genealogy helps us to better understand how the histories of things we view as obvious have been woven together to create the political conditions we live with today.
- The commonplace definition of genealogy refers to the tracing of one’s family tree. How is the philosophical concept of genealogy, as described above, similar to and different from the commonplace definition?
- The concept of genealogy is demonstrated above by describing some of the lesser-known histories associated with the idea of “unalienable rights.” Are there any other political ideas that we take for granted that you think would benefit from a genealogical study?
- Has your view of “inalienable rights” changed after reading this genealogy of the term?
Arneil, B. (1996). Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. 2021. National Archives. Retrieved from www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
Foucault, M. (1980). Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Locke, J. (1980). Second Treatise of Government. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing.
NBC News Learn. John Locke, Natural Rights. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7-Abmn9lZY
Nietzsche, F. (1998). On the Genealogy of Morality. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing.
Tully, J. (1993). Rediscovering America: The Two Treatises and Aboriginal Rights. In An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts. Cambridge, UK: CambridgeUniversity Press.
Zuckert, M.P. (1996). The Natural Rights Republic. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.